I return to Ebert’s comment,

“One feels at the end that nothing actual and human has been at stake; cartoon characters in a fantasy world have been brought along about as far as it is possible for them to come, and while we applaud the achievement, the trilogy is more a work for adolescents (of all ages) than for those hungering for truthful emotion thoughtfully paid for.”

The phrase “adolescents of all ages” sounds more derogatory than “children of all ages,” but maybe it shouldn’t.  Calling “Star Wars” child-like implies, accurately, its aura of whimsy.  Calling “
Lord of the Rings” adolescent implies, also accurately, those days when we still acted as children but expected to be treated as adults, or as the trilogy’s defenders will say, behaved as adults but were regarded as children.  “Lord of the Rings” moves with its head down, seriously, as if it is filled with portentous secrets and deep thoughts.  And what do we get when we finally ask it what it’s thinking?  “Power corrupts.”  No kidding.  I hadn’t thought of that.  Yet perhaps the best possible reading of Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” as having any subtext is as an allegory for male adolescence itself.  Whether or not Tolkien intended this or not is absolutely immaterial; we’re talking about Jackson’s films, not Tolkien’s novels.

Let’s just make a quick list of how the movie encapsulates the ages of about 8 thru 15:

1)  Juvenile idea of war (see Lord of the Rings” as War) as a video game:  the Beautiful Elf Guy and the Fat Dwarf are competing to see how many kills they can make, just like the score in a video game.

2)  Girls as honorary boys: the Princess of the Blonde People joins all the boys in battle.

3)  Girls (and sex) as scary: Nathan says “by the end of ‘Return of the King,’ we get two hobbits cowering together in fear of that big flaming vagina above the mountain, having just run in horror out of a dark, sticky, musty tunnel.” Dr. Clayton says “‘Fellowship of the Ring’ exploits…the revulsion from adult sexuality…as if sexual predators were lurking around every corner. Still early on, when Frodo and his sidekicks from the Shire go into an inn where they are supposed to meet Gandalf, they find the place filled with leering, bearded older males, like a lecherous motorcycle gang out in search of hot boy ass.  A later episode in which Boromir (Sean Bean) and Frodo are alone together in the woods and Boromir tries to take the ring from the boy has equally obvious connotations of sexual assault when the older male approaches the younger seductively and then attacks him after Frodo proves wary of his intentions.  But what attracts him more, taking the ring or the boy's cherry?”

4)  Girls as untouchable: Dave Clayton says “neither adult sexuality nor anything else adult penetrates into the chastely cloistered world of the movie. Although the film allows a bit of discrete courtship between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Arwen (Liv Tyler), all the feminine figures in ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ appear garbed in white as if they were luminous embodiments of purity.”

5)  Intimidation at the sight of the older boy: again, Dr. Clayton says “in a sequence that takes place towards the end [of ‘Fellowship’], when the boys are boating down a river…they encounter gigantic statues of the ancient kings, carven out of stone, before passing into a lake. Directly ahead lies a phallic pinnacle, and behind them a suspiciously narrow strait they have just navigated…But those statues deserve a closer look. The effigies are depicted with their hands raised, apparently to ward off intruders. As the boys drift by, silently staring in astonishment, the film cuts to an incredibly ugly shot of the boat going past the huge sandaled foot of one of the kings…The keynote is the discrepancy in size…what is the awe the boys feel towards these images except the admiration younger males feel for the superior physical endowments of older ones?”

6)  Gloom and doom sense of seriousness: the entire trilogy—from direction to music to acting to cinematography—carries itself like a teenager with his head down.

7)  No financial or domestic concerns. O’Ehley says “thirteen is…the best age at which to have read Tolkien’s books. Writer Brian Aldiss mentions in ‘Trillion Year Spree’ (his excellent history of science fiction) that the success of fantasy novels is due to the absence of the one thing that their adolescent readers are always short of: money. You never see Lord Sauron struggling to make the mortgage payments on any of his huge castles. Or even the dashing Aragorn slapping down a few pence for his drink of ale at the local tavern. Or how about Frodo and Sam never having to pay any toll road fees? Money just never figures in any of these tales, Aldiss says.”

8)  Enormous teenage appeal: the trilogy revels in elements of video games, long-haired rock bands, perfectly-coiffed boy bands (“this ‘fellowship’ looks like a pubescent boy band in medieval drag” says Clayton), Renaissance fairs, loud music, and the serial, repetitive format of comic books, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and giant science-fiction sagas that come in 20 volumes.

Clayton’s conclusion is that
“‘Fellowship of the Ring’ wants to pass off a teenager's limited vision of the world as myth.” He finds this notion of backwards progress as dangerous, or at least a kind of opiate that makes audiences feel they are thinking when in truth they are only being placated.  When the teenager’s world ends, the movie ends, as if there’s nothing all that interesting left to do, and while we may live on, we’ll only spend that time in a kind of living death in which the best we can do is recapture days gone by. 

Try seeing things from the 40-year-old’s perspective and you’ll see how insulting it is. Isn’t the multiplex already cluttered with enough films that glorify All Things Teenage?  Is “LOTR” an examination of all this, or merely the most purely 13-Year-Old-Boy-Movie ever made?  In his Great Movies review of “Star Wars,” Roger Ebert says “In one way or another all the big studios have been trying to make another ‘Star Wars’ ever since…it located Hollywood's center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager.”The occasional movie in which the hero actually toys with the notion of not accepting his quest—“The Last Temptation of Christ” comes to mind, or even Han Solo’s departure near the end of “Star Wars”—are more interesting.  We are not sucked into “LOTR’s” characters because there is not enough there to do any sucking.  Without that emotional bond the action sequences are never quite as thrilling as they could be.  Of course, you may not feel this way.  You may find them the most human of all screen characters you’ve ever seen.  Whatever.  Keep in mind that of the 30 Academy Award nominations bestowed upon the trilogy, only one was for acting.

There have been many fine films in which archetypes are given no choice but to march along their preordained generic routes, in which all the events that surround them feel inevitable, but is there any purpose to this in “
Lord of the Rings?”  According to Greg Wright of Hollywood Jesus, there is:  to create the impression that Tolkien’s story is the oldest of all, the one upon which all successive stories are based.  But even then, shouldn’t we feel more like we’re watching choices being made?  And if you create the story from which all others spring, doesn’t that mean you must obey every cliché possible?  So why do this?  Why make a movie comprised solely of the most common denominators of fairy tales if no examination, criticism, or meditation of them is made?  How can we even know if Tolkien is trying to create this “oldest of all stories” or is he simply unable to defy fairy tale conventions?  At least we know “Kill Bill” is intended to make something of a joke of the action movie by stripping away everything but the bare essentials.

Speaking of Han Solo, his function in the “Star Wars” films is to stand-in for the audience, not unlike Dr. McCoy in the old “Star Trek.”  He is in this far-off, strange universe, but not of the universe.  He comforts us with his familiar attitudes and he asks questions about the fictional world.  Perhaps most importantly, he even makes fun of it a little for us, so that its ego is regularly deflated a bit.  “Lord of the Rings” lacks any character whose purpose could be so complex, creating a kind of “members only” atmosphere in which we must accept the world on only its own terms, with no detachment, irony, or examination.  The absence of the Solo-McCoy creates the aura of some viewers being among the “initiated”—who have read all the books, online references, and other sources, who will be catching all the throwaway lines and details—and some being “uninitiated.” 

My friend
Nathan puts it this way:

“I think the trilogy is targeting the 14-year-old male demographic. The films seem to do a fairly good job of that.  It’s a complicated world with lots of weird names to remember and lots of secret passages to uncover.  When I was a kid, I remember liking that ‘The Hobbit’ cartoon.  I liked the idea of magic rings that turned you invisible and special swords named Sting.  I even bought my own ‘magic ring’ in a border town in Mexico…but that’s another story.”

There’s also the matter that a really terrific adventure will have more twists and turns than “The Lord of the Rings,” which basically sets its characters in one direction and leaves them there for the next six-and-a-half hours.  There are not really a lot of surprises and revelations, only a repetitive series of battles-to-end-all-battles, mixed with bloated dialogue and amazing sights. 
O’Ehley writes “the battle scenes, as impressive as they may be, become repetitious and after similar scenes in ‘The Two Towers,’ I began to suspect that maybe the whole series could have skipped an entire movie altogether and still have gotten to the point.”  And as for the “romantic” subplots—never mind.  Nathan has this to say:

“They’re just cartoons, both figuratively because the characters are exaggerated caricatures of reality and literally because the second and third installments seemed mostly like exercises in digitally pasting non-performances of un-inspired actors from sterile soundstages directly onto the irrelevant, poorly compiled ‘mess en scene’ of the kinds of paddle-less video games that are all the rage in the multiplexes nowadays.”

In the end, the trilogy is a sturdy embodiment of old archetype of small innocents lost in a big world.  It is lavishly made, but not very soulful, and it’s worth noting that the trilogy’s final installment came out the same year as the more challenging, far superior “
Master & Commander,” a human adventure that beats it on every level except the visual one.


Next week: "'Lord of the Rings' moves with its head down, seriously, as if it is filled with portentous secrets and deep thoughts. And what do we get when we finally ask it what it’s thinking? 'Power corrupts.' No kidding. I hadn’t thought of that . . ."




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